By most objective standards, No. 21 Wichita State passes the eye test. The Shockers are averaging 82.5 points per game, 10 more than they averaged last season. They are shooting 40.6 percent from the 3-point arc, and they put four players on the 15-man All-Missouri Valley Conference team.
Yet even with a 27-4 record, a 17-1 MVC mark and a share of the league’s regular-season championship with Illinois State, the Shockers are aware that a slip in this weekend’s conference tournament could mean a trip to a three-letter event instead of the four-letter tourney they have inhabited for five consecutive seasons.
So when the Shockers meet seventh-seeded Bradley on Friday night in an MVC quarterfinal at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, second-seeded Wichita State plans to treat it like the must-win game it is instead of a chance to ease into postseason play.
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“There’s a desperate feel in the air,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said Thursday. “Teams that want to go to the NCAA Tournament understand what that’s like. I’ve got guys in my program that have never been. Landry Shamet’s never played in an NCAA Tournament, but he certainly has an opportunity.
“But to secure that 100 percent, not have to wait for a week on the pundits and experts and selection committee, we need to win three games this weekend.”
And that has been an issue for Wichita State, even during Marshall’s great run of the past decade. The Shockers have won just one MVC tournament since 1987 — the 2014 event, when they backed up a 31-0 regular season by rolling through Evansville, Missouri State and Indiana State.
Last season’s team dropped an overtime game to eventual tourney champ Northern Iowa in the semifinals, which almost cost the Shockers an NCAA bid. Wichita State had to go to the play-in round in Dayton, where it beat Vanderbilt, before it overpowered Arizona and then fell to Miami (Fla.) in its third game in five days.
Perhaps because of that journey, or because he knows the Shockers are being panned for a non-conference schedule that turned into a dud, Marshall was feeling feisty when asked about possibly being on the bubble.
“It’s frustrating,” he admitted. “I’ve watched this team evolve, and I’ve been around some really good teams. If you have doubts, just watch this team play. If you still have doubts, then either we had a really bad game, or maybe you don’t know much about basketball.”
It doesn’t take Jay Bilas or Bill Raftery to figure out Wichita State has a big edge on Bradley (13-19), which subdued Drake 67-58 late Thursday night to earn a third crack at the Shockers.
But the Braves, who fell 100-66 at Wichita State on New Year’s Day and 64-49 four weeks later, have won four games in a row. A painful rebuilding process started last season by second-year coach Brian Wardle appears to be bearing long-awaited fruit, although next season or the season after might be a better time for ripening.
“It’s a good step for our program just to win a tournament game, just to get a feel for the tournament,” Wardle said. “Survive and advance. That’s what March is all about. To beat Wichita State, you’ve got to play 40 minutes of tough, physical, smart basketball.”